Courtney Tate

Owner of Ontime Quality Machining

Courtney Tate knew there was a better way to run a job shop, so he opened his own. Now he's on a mission to give underrepresented people a chance to grow manufacturing careers and bring jobs back to Milwaukee's inner city.

Creating Job Shop Careers in Milwaukee's Inner City

As a Black job shop owner, Courtney Tate is a rarity, and he wants to change that. His business, Ontime Quality Machining (OQM), is one of perhaps five Black-owned CNC businesses in Milwaukee, yet the city has a Black population of 230,000 and a history rich in manufacturing.

With a shop located in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood and nearly 20 years of experience as a manufacturing engineer, Tate is on a personal mission to introduce manufacturing careers to underrepresented communities, one person at a time. On his drive from home to work, which cuts through the heart of Milwaukee, he stops kids and shows them pictures of rims and chains as examples of what they can make on a CNC.

Courtney Tate, owner of Ontime Quality Machining, is on a personal mission to introduce manufacturing careers to underrepresented communities.
There aren't enough Black entrepreneurs doing this type of work, and there's a massive need for it,” Tate says. “We have a lot of barber shops around, but I want to see a CNC shop on every corner. I think it's a nice vision that could help out everyone. There's a lot of work out there, so why not?”

Early Start

Courtney Tate holds a B.S. from Milwaukee School of Engineering. So that younger people can relate to manufacturing tools, he explains that CAD/CAM systems such Autodesk Fusion are like video games on steroids.

Tate's interest in design and tinkering began early. Raised largely by his grandmother in challenging circumstances, he would use aluminum foil to make shapes and animals. Fortunately, the chance to attend Milwaukee's Bradley Technology and Trade High School, where he chose an educational path in tool and die, opened a world of possibilities to him.

As a kid, I was always passionate about building things, and math and science,” Tate says. “Once I saw the CNC machines and how everything worked, it clicked for me. I thought, ‘Wow. This is awesome.’

While still in high school, Tate received job offers, so after graduation, he attended Milwaukee Area Technical College part time while working as an entry-level CNC operator in a job shop.

Even at that point, Tate had dreams to open his own job shop and knew he'd need to know process engineering, so he got a bachelor's degree in engineering at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Making his own way

Taking what he learned in school and from working at different companies with different methods for doing things, he combined all that knowledge and put his own modern spin on it to start OQM in 2020.

I look at this field as an art, Tate says. A lot of companies are stuck in their way of doing things and not advancing to more modernized methods. I would suggest ideas like a new tool or program that would save time and money, but they weren't hearing me. That's what pushed me to open up my own business. I hope to never work for someone else again.

Tate sought help from the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation, which assists underserved populations interested in starting a business. They provided business planning and start-up support and helped him secure a generous small business loan.

Shop Supervisor Jason Smith has more than two decades of machining experience, enabling him to fine tune program settings for a challenging part detail.

Thankfully, companies such as Haas have made it easy for him to acquire CNC systems. This includes a Haas VF4 SS with 3+2 capabilities and a Haas VF 4 3-axis CNC, both known as high-production industry workhorses.

I love Haas because they worked with me to get set up, and they have good financing options, Tate notes. No payments for the first 90 days gave me time to bank up capital to make those payments. Payments are spread out over eight years, so they're low compared to how much money we can make in this field.

Machine Operator Leonard Ross had limited CNC experience but a positive attitude. Now he can set up and run the Smart Machine Tool lathe and is learning the Haas VF 4 machines as well.

Running his own business has inherent rewards, but Tate has a bigger mission in mind – hiring people who would otherwise be overlooked in manufacturing, such as racial minorities, people who have been incarcerated (he employs one) and women. He has three basic employee requirements: know basic math, be honest, and show up to work on time every day, ready to learn.

The manufacturing industry needs more people, but so many don't know about it,” Tate says. “It's not a skills gap, it's just an awareness gap. I want to bring more awareness to manufacturing, so I'm doing it my own way. I had to put the house on the line as loan collateral to make it happen, but it's worth it. I love every single moment of it.”

Simplifying the job

To make learning easier for inexperienced employees, Tate provides process method sheets with step-by-step instructions and photos for every job. Plus, he has purposely purchased shop equipment that's simple to operate, such as the NLX 2500/250 Smart Machine Tool lathe with a FANUC controller.

That system is user friendly, gets the job done fast and well, and holds great tolerances. Operators catch on fast to it, Tate says.

Visual instructions help those with less experience learn to set-up and run a CNC faster.

Plus, Tate wants work to be fun.

CAD/CAM programs such as Autodesk Fusion 360 are like video games on steroids because you take this model out of your head, put it into the software and make it tangible. Then we sell it and get money for it, which is pretty cool. Young kids quickly understand the concept, Tate says.

Vision for the future

Machine Operator Courtney Tate Jr. (CJ, at right) listens as his father (center) and Shop Supervisor Jason Smith discuss an unusual set up.

Tate hopes his four sons will all work in the manufacturing field. Growing up, they saw their father working in job shops, going to college and graduating, and working with CAD and CAM at the dinner table. Oldest son Courtney Jr. (CJ, age 20) already has eight months of experience operating the lathe, and 16-year-old Corey is learning to set up the machine as well.

I'd like to have all my sons somewhere throughout the shop, maybe on the business side, in sales, or on the shop floor. They all like to get dirty and take things apart, like me, Tate says.

Tate will be bringing CJ, Corey, and the rest of the family to IMTS for an eye-opening exposure to North America's largest collection of manufacturing technology. He first attended IMTS 2018 when he worked as a manufacturing engineer for a hydraulic component company.

The company sent its manufacturing engineers to IMTS to discover ways to make their processes better,” says Tate. “I did not know that it was going to be that awesome. I was like a kid in a candy store, seeing all the different vendors. Just the different tooling blew me away. I purchased a roughing tool that increased feeds from 15 inches per minute to more than 200 inches per minute. I saved the company thousands of dollars just by going to IMTS. I wouldn't have known about this tool if I hadn't gone.”

But beyond making it a family affair at IMTS – wife Erica quit her corporate job to manage the books and raise their younger daughters – Tate has big plans for the future.

My vision for OQM is to come up with a plan where I can have this be a franchise of some sort, Tate says. If a worker says, ‘I think I want to own a shop. I don't want to just run a machine all day,’ we can come up with a plan where I can help them get going and funnel work to them.

Supporting entrepreneurs like himself will not only have a lasting impact on his community, but also boost an appreciation for the manufacturing industry.

Ultimately I want to grow this field and bring work back home, Tate notes. In all these vacant buildings, we could put work in there. Kids need something to do, and this is a great trade to learn.

After a year of college, CJ Tate found that his true passion was working with his hands. He's now a Machine Operator and hopes to follow his father's career path.

That, indeed, is a beautiful vision.

»   Meet More Members of the IMTS Community